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Ralph Rising 

What the Nader Candidacy means for Gore, the Greens, the left, and the nation

Wednesday, Jun 28 2000
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Photo by Greg SkinnerI. SEATTLE MAN

DENVER -- SO NOW SEATTLE HAS ITS CANDIDATE.

Longtime consumer advocate, corporate critic, economic democrat and public citizen Ralph Nader has emerged from last weekend's national convention of the Green Party with a new identity, combining and transcending all the rest. Nader is now the leader of the New New Left -- the Post-Seattle Left more particularly.

It's not just that Nader, in his speech accepting the Green Party's presidential nomination last Sunday, extolled and identified himself with the Teamster-and-Turtle coalition that first emerged during last fall's anti­World Trade Organization demonstrations: He had, after all, addressed and championed it at the time. It's not just his five-minute campaign biopic, which repeatedly intercut images of Nader's life, presented in rapid-fire MTV-like succession, with shots of the masked demonstrators and club-swinging cops of last November. It's something deeper -- that Nader has come to personify the spirit of Seattle in both its aspects.

For there were really two objects of protest in last autumn's demonstrations. The first was the dismantling of democracy, and of democratically created social and political rights, at the hands of global capital. The second was the corruption of the entire civilization by market forces -- the Commodification of Fucking Everything; COFE, for short. It's COFE that puts corporate logos on every object and idea, that makes life-and-death health-care decisions a matter of dollars-and-cents calculations, that trivializes the public sphere and intrudes into the private sphere so that all our preferences can be targeted by marketers.

That Nader is among the foremost critics of corporate globalization is hardly news. But slowly, over the past few years, Nader has also become COFE's leading scourge (though in Nader's COFE, the F is unvoiced). Thus the frustration of life spent on hold ("When I want to hear classical music late at night," he says, "I call United Airlines") becomes a function of the corporate appropriation of time itself. COFE, he argues, has also commercialized childhood: "The old-model corporation," he told Green delegates Sunday in his acceptance speech, "never sold directly to kids, except maybe bubble gum. They let parents decide what to buy for children. Today, the corporations are electronic child molesters -- subjecting children to violence and low-grade sensuality." Where conservative cultural critic William J. Bennett sees only a decline in values, Nader has located a plausible culprit: It's COFE, along with overlong workdays, that shrinks the role of parents, and magnifies the role of media, in children's lives.

Similarly, it's hard to say which offends Nader more about the Gore-Bush debates planned for the fall: the fact that the candidates intend to exclude Pat Buchanan and him from the proceedings, or the fact that they're sponsored by Anheuser-Busch. "This is the people's election," he boomed at a Sunday press conference. "They should seize it back from the Democratic and Republican parties and their corporate sponsors."

Democracy for sale, literally.

Nader, in sum, isn't simply running for president this year, advancing a list of alternative programs for discrete crises. Rather, he is attempting to answer a fundamental question that gnaws at his countrymen even when they prefer not to think about it: What has become of us? At 66, graying, gaunt and ever indignant, Nader seems to oscillate -- awkwardly, clumsily -- between the roles of corporate critic and secular prophet.

Nader may not be up to this new role, for his skills and inclinations are not those of a movement leader, let alone of a prophet. (Prophets need not be warm, but they need both an empathetic capacity and a touch of the poet, qualities altogether missing in Nader.) He most certainly will not win the White House; he probably can't establish the Green Party as a permanent force in electoral politics. But he will place post-Seattle progressivism squarely on the American political map. His candidacy is the continuation of the Battle of Seattle by other means.

II. GREEN MAKE-OVER

NO LESS SURPRISING THAN THE TRANSFORMATION of Ralph Nader is the transformation of the Greens. Partly as a result of Nader's candidacy, partly due to the changes in the progressive movement since Seattle, they are no longer a party concerned primarily with matters ecological. They have become primarily a party of economic justice.

This is to some extent the result, however, of the rightward drift, or gallop, of the Democratic Party. Politics abhors a vacuum, and the Greens have moved into the space traditionally occupied by the party of the New Deal, the Great Society, or even Clinton's health-care plan. So long as the Democrats were the party of unmet social needs -- even infinitesimally so -- there wasn't really much space to their left. With Al Gore, however, the Democrats have a nominee who doesn't even mention universal health care despite projected surpluses of $2 trillion.

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